Turkeyâ€™s invasion of northeastern Syria has been roundly and rightly criticized by the international community. As the situation deteriorates, the world quickly needs to move beyond mere opprobrium.
So far, action has been limited. Several European nations have suspended arms sales to the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but the European Union has hesitated over a full-scale military embargo. President Donald Trump, having first given Erdogan the all-clear to invade, has put higher tariffs on Turkish steel, halted talks on a new trade deal, and sanctioned the Turkish ministers of defense, energy and the interior.
Such efforts wonâ€™t cut it. Sterner measures will likely be necessary to stop the invasion from producing a humanitarian catastrophe. Tens of thousands of Kurdish noncombatants are fleeing the fighting, foreshadowing a new refugee crisis. A security nightmare is brewing as hundreds of associates of the Islamic State break out of Kurdish prison camps. Worse is sure to follow as Syrian dictator Bashar Assad sends his forces into the theater, encouraged by the withdrawal of the small U.S. military presence.
Erdogan says his objective is to create space for relocating Syrian refugees and to drive Kurdish militias away from Turkeyâ€™s borders. But the behavior of his military and its allies on the ground suggests more sinister objectives. Already, there have been indications of war crimes, including the targeting of civilians and execution of prisoners. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper says Turkey likely intends to extend its invasion further than originally planned.
Turkey has responded to the criticism with belligerence, in rhetoric and action. Erdogan has threatened to unleash millions of Syrian refugees on Europe. In a singular display of brazenness, Turkish forces have directed artillery fire close to a U.S. military outpost.
This behavior should remove any residual hopes that Erdoganâ€™s Turkey can be a dependable ally. For years now, Turkey has demonstrated that its values and its view of the world are antithetical to those of the Western alliance. Its purchase of Russian missile-defense systems shouldâ€™ve been the last straw, but the U.S. and Europe have clung to the possibility that it could yet return to the fold. They should now accept reality.
Although NATO has no formal way to eject members, it should move swiftly to reduce Turkeyâ€™s role in the alliance. Withdrawing U.S. nuclear warheads from the country would be a strong opening signal. NATO aircraft and troops should likewise be drawn down to a bare minimum and intelligence sharing should be drastically reduced. The alliance should also heed Greeceâ€™s call for naval support in anticipation of a wave of refugees - in case Erdogan follows through on his threat.
More immediately, the U.S. and Europe need to rally international support for the Kurds and provide extensive humanitarian assistance for the refugees. In addition to imposing strong sanctions, the U.S. Congress should do everything in its power to prevail on Trump to reverse his senseless decision to end the American military presence in Syria - not least to brace for the inevitable resurgence of the Islamic State.
Even then, the damage will have been done. Through sheer heedlessness, Trump has created a colossal mess in a country that has already endured too much war and suffering. Limiting the fallout is the best the world can now hope for.